Dis­cov­er­ing the best schools in Sabah

Scuba Diver Ocean Planet - - One Ocean - Text by Gil Wool­ley/Scubazoo Im­ages by Scubazoo, Ja­son Is­ley and Gil Wool­ley

With its an­cient rain­forests, rugged, gran­ite-peaked moun­tains, idyl­lic la­goons and pris­tine beaches, Borneo is a wild place and per­fect for a Na­ture lover like my­self; I am for­tu­nate enough to live and work in the Malaysian state of Sabah, which strad­dles the north­ern tip of this enor­mous is­land. Sabah lies at the heart of the Co­ral Tri­an­gle and is home to some of the world’s great­est marine bio­di­ver­sity; it is this hid­den beauty below the sur­face of the sea that draws divers and snorkellers from around the world. One of the great­est at­trac­tions for th­ese vis­i­tors and lo­cals alike are the huge schools of fish that can be found at some of Sabah’s div­ing hotspots. How­ever, this is not the same for me. Dur­ing my dives, I usu­ally adopt the po­si­tion of a ra­zor­fish, hov­er­ing ver­ti­cally with my nose an inch from the seabed look­ing for crit­ters, obliv­i­ous to any­thing in mid-wa­ter.


The Co­ral Tri­an­gle is con­sid­ered the global epi­cen­tre of marine bio­di­ver­sity. The en­tire area rep­re­sents one of the rich­est marine habi­tats in the world and an es­ti­mated 3,000 dif­fer­ent species of fish, more than 600 reef­build­ing co­ral species and more than 30 per­cent of the

world’s co­ral reefs can be found here. Un­der­stand­ably, Sabah – ly­ing at the heart of this ex­tra­or­di­nary re­gion – can claim to have some of the high­est marine bio­di­ver­sity on the planet. For a re­cent book pro­ject, my­self and two other Scubazoo pho­tog­ra­phers trav­elled around the coast of Sabah doc­u­ment­ing the high­lights of the un­der­wa­ter world. It was dur­ing this trip that I be­gan to leave my trusty macro set up on the boat and started to stare into the blue. The first fish school that caught my at­ten­tion was pretty tame – a small army of banded cat­fish stalk­ing their away across the sand, de­vour­ing any­thing ed­i­ble in their path in the lo­cal marine park near where I live in Kota Kinabalu. It was the way they moved as one in an ever-churn­ing ball of stripes that got me though. How do they de­cide who goes in front and when to switch? Who gets the un­lucky po­si­tion at the edge of the pack where you could get picked off and how long do they have to stay there?


We trav­elled fur­ther up the coast to Malaysia’s only atoll, Layang Layang, or Swal­low Reef, which rises 2,000 me­tres from the floor of the South China Sea ap­prox­i­mately 300 kilo­me­tres northwest of Kota Kinabalu. The atoll’s al­most to­tal iso­la­tion means stun­ning vis­i­bil­ity and pris­tine reefs, along with an abun­dance of pe­lagic marine life. In re­cent years, Layang Layang has been the site of many spe­cial en­coun­ters, in­clud­ing with whale sharks, or­cas, mel­on­headed whales and even sperm whales. Along with the huge schools of reef fish that thrive in th­ese pris­tine wa­ters, it is the ham­mer­heads that peo­ple flock there for and huge schools can be seen in the blue. Dur­ing the day­light hours, the schools of sharks, mostly fe­males, are ac­tively en­gaged in so­cial in­ter­ac­tions and jockey for prime so­cial po­si­tion in the cen­tre of the school, be­fore break­ing up at night to hunt alone. Who knew that sharks were so so­cia­ble and how do they in­ter­act dur­ing this pe­riod when gath­ered to­gether?


Con­tin­u­ing the jour­ney along the coast, we even­tu­ally ended up on the western side of Sabah. Con­sis­tently voted one of the top dive des­ti­na­tions in the world, Pu­lau Si­padan is a must for any pas­sion­ate diver. Si­padan is Malaysia’s only oceanic is­land. This tiny speck of land, lo­cated 40 kilo­me­tres south of Sem­porna, is in fact a nee­dle-like pin­na­cle of rock and reef sur­rounded by 600-me­tre-deep wa­ter – a con­stant source of nu­tri­en­trich up­wellings. Th­ese nu­tri­ents pro­vide the ba­sis for a re­mark­able food chain that cul­mi­nates in the many large an­i­mals com­monly en­coun­tered in Si­padan’s wa­ters. In recog­ni­tion of this unique and pro­duc­tive ecosys­tem, the area is now care­fully pro­tected, with lim­its on the

num­ber of divers that can visit ev­ery day and a ban on re­sorts on the is­land it­self. Con­se­quently, life there is flour­ish­ing. As you de­scend into Si­padan’s clear wa­ters, the first things that greet you are the sheer walls drop­ping down into the abyss; the pris­tine, colour­ful reefs; the green and hawks­bill tur­tles, too nu­mer­ous to count; and the dense schools of fusilier, bat­fish and an­thias. Then you no­tice the in­tim­i­dat­ing mass of jacks and barracuda, the napoleon wrasse and whitetip and grey reef sharks, and your eyes are drawn out into the blue, as tales of whale sharks, man­tas and ham­mer­heads run through your mind.

Div­ing around Si­padan can be a dizzy­ing ex­pe­ri­ence as the va­ri­ety of fish schools that en­cir­cle you is im­mense. It is hard to be­lieve that when I first dived Si­padan many years ago, the most ex­cit­ing find for me was a frog­fish hid­den in a chan­nel. I now gazed in awe as barracuda, sharks and tur­tles cruised by. Why was I stick­ing my head in the sand all the time? As soon as you exit the dive boat and start to dive at the fa­mous Drop Off dive site of Si­padan, you are con­fronted by an im­mense school of jacks. The thou­sands of shim­mer­ing fish ro­tate like a mas­sive glit­ter ball, and you no­tice the var­i­ous sharks pierc­ing in and out, and it is hard to drag your­self away and re­mem­ber you have a

dive to con­tinue! It would be easy to spend the whole dive en­cir­cled by this mass of fish as they con­stantly shift and ro­tate as one. A men­tion has to go to the num­ber of tur­tles it is pos­si­ble to see on a dive here. Dur­ing the mat­ing sea­son, you can see a string of males, some­times up to 10 in num­ber, fran­ti­cally chas­ing a fe­male. Even with­out the clam­our of the mat­ing sea­son, if you time the tide right then huge num­bers of tur­tles can be seen as they head to­wards their feed­ing grounds.


One of my favourite dives at Si­padan starts very early in the morn­ing, which means you get to wit­ness the sun­rise on the jour­ney out – a mag­i­cal way to start the day. A truly im­pres­sive sight, if you can drag your­self out of bed in time, is the pro­ces­sion of bump­head par­rot­fish. They have strong beaks to feed on live co­rals and al­gae, and a sin­gle adult will in­gest tons of co­ral each year, which is ex­creted as white sand. Their feed­ing ac­tiv­ity is im­por­tant for the pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion of co­ral sand within a reef, and to pre­vent grow­ing al­gae from chok­ing co­ral. In the early

morn­ing light, th­ese huge fish make for a won­der­ful sight in the shal­low wa­ter as they head out to deep wa­ter dur­ing the day. In terms of shear num­bers, it is hard to beat a mas­sive school of barracuda, which can form a swirling “tor­nado” from the sea’s sur­face down to a depth of 30 me­tres. Th­ese spec­tac­u­lar schools, which may con­tain thou­sands of in­di­vid­u­als, will break up at dusk as the barracuda head off to hunt for food, and con­vene again at dawn. Try­ing to get shots of this mag­nif­i­cent spec­ta­cle and con­trol my mid-wa­ter buoy­ancy in a rip­ping cur­rent was one of the most chal­leng­ing yet re­ward­ing ex­pe­ri­ences of the whole trip. I still love to hunt for crit­ters and can’t re­sist a good muck dive, but it is never long be­fore I take my eyes away from the sand to look up and have a good look around for what might be out there, school­ing around in the blue. SDOP

1. Black snap­per, Ma­color niger, and a school of big-eye trevally, Caranx sex­fas­cia­tus, swim­ming in the sun­light above the shal­low reef, Si­padan Is­land, Sabah, Malaysia Im­age © Ja­son Is­ley/Scubazoo

2. Blue-streak fusiliers, Pte­ro­cae­sio tile, swim close over the reef, with a whitetip reef shark, Tri­aen­odon obe­sus, gi­ant trevally, Caranx ig­no­bilis, and a school of big-eye trevally, Caranx sex­fas­cia­tus, swim­ming above, Si­padan Is­land, Sabah, Malaysia Im­age © Ja­son Is­ley/Scubazoo

3. School of scal­loped ham­mer­head sharks, Sphyrna lewini, Layang Layang, Sabah, Malaysia Im­age © Ja­son Is­ley/Scubazoo



A curry puff – the per­fect snack be­tween dives.


The bam­boo dance, which is a lot eas­ier af­ter some rice wine...


Wa­ter bot­tle, sun hat and flip flops; this is the trop­ics so keep cool and hy­drated.


The end of May is the time to join in the har­vest fes­ti­val cel­e­bra­tions.


Jac­ques Cousteau first dived Si­padan in 1984 and fa­mously de­clared, “I have seen other places like Si­padan, 45 years ago, but now no more. Now we have found an un­touched piece of art.”


The Kinabalu Na­tional Park is a must, even if you don't have time to climb the moun­tain it­self.

4. Bump­head par­rot­fish, Bol­bome­to­pon muri­ca­tum, swim­ming to­gether as a school, Si­padan, Sabah, Malaysia, Borneo Im­age © Gil Wool­ley/Scubazoo

5. Large School of chevron barracuda, Sphyraena qunie, Si­padan, Celebes Sea, Sabah, East Malaysia Im­age © Ja­son Is­ley/Scubazoo

6. School­ing ju­ve­nile striped cat­fish, Plo­to­sus lin­ea­tus, shot from above, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia Im­age © Chris­tian Loader/Scubazoo

7. Large school of chevron barracuda, Sphyraena qe­nie, swim­ming over reef off Si­padan Is­land, Borneo, East Malaysia Im­age © Gil Wool­ley/Scubazoo

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Singapore

© PressReader. All rights reserved.